A new perspective on an old Grimm tale
|Oh just sit down and stop making such a fuss. There really is no use. You’re been running long enough. Mind if I smoke? I know I’ve got a pipe here somewhere. Ah there it is. I would recommend not reaching for that poker. You’ll find it really won’t do much good. Remember that time you tried to run me over? You got a rude awakening that time didn’t you? I did have a good laugh over that one though. The look on your face was priceless.
Please, just sit. That’s better. How about a drink? I know, I know this is your house, but heck I’ve been here enough before, checking up on you, that I know my way around.
I suppose it is rather awkward to be served in your own house by a guest. Trust me, the English absolutely hate it. Especially a couple centuries ago. But still you deserve to relax a bit, you’ve been on edge for far too long.
I’ve never understood why some people are so afraid of me. It’s rather ridiculous really. I mean of all the things to be afraid of—here’s your drink—you choose me. And why exactly? It’s not as if I’m dressed oddly. This is pretty usual attire for me. Maybe a little formal, but something about the whole suit and tie look appeals to me. What the hat? Well, yes I suppose the bowler hat is a bit of an outdated look, but I like it. Adds a touch of sophistication. But what exactly about this is frightening? Sure, there was the black hooded robe and scythe look, which I wore once (once mind you, that was it) as a practical joke in the Dark Ages. Apparently people decided to run with that one. But I’ve never understood the bad rap.
And what about some of the sayings, I mean Oppenheimer? When the atomic bomb went off? “Now I am Become Death, destroyer of Worlds,” as if I had anything to do with that. Of course all he was doing was quoting was the Baghavad Gita, which don’t even get me started on that book and the whole reincarnation thing. Seriously, that whole idea almost put me out of business. But I digress. The point is: I’m not really as bad as I’m often made out to be.
Think about it. You know I’m coming for you. It’s going to happen eventually. There’s no sense in being afraid. Yet how am I portrayed? How does every story and folk tale make me out? As someone to be tricked or cheated, because apparently I’m taking something that’s yours. But frankly, that suggests life is governed by a form of ownership. Is there some deed somewhere that you have tucked away that says your life is yours? If that’s the case then why am I not given a deed for every person I meet when the time comes?
Oh stop blubbering. It was a rhetorical question. Let me tell you a story. This should put it into perspective for you. Have you ever heard about how I was a godfather? No? Well it’s not often told anymore and when it is, it’s usually told to make me out like the bad guy.
So it was a long time ago. We’re talking back in the days when modern medicine consisted of herbs and poultices that were more of a matter of persuasion than actual cures. And the best form of communication was a letter delivered by horseback and unless it had the King’s seal on it, you could count on it most likely being opened long before it reached its destination (if in fact, it ever reached its destination, with robbers and all that).
At the time, I was on my way to greet an old woman who lived in a house out in the woods. I was in the guise of a man who had no distinctive class. Back then it was best to not be too rich, to avoid robbers, and not too poor because then no one talked to you. My legs were somewhat withered, a detail that I sometimes added to my appearance because it was distinct enough to be noticed. Thus I could easily shed it when I didn’t want to be noticed and no one would spot me in a crowd.
Anyway, I was walking along the highway, hoping to meet the old woman by noon (for she was one of those people unlike you who actually was ready to embrace her fate with open arms), when a man came walking up to me. There was something about him the moment I saw him that told me he was up to no good. However he seemed desperate, so I offered him a hello.
In lieu of a hello back, he said frantically, “What is your name?”
I hesitated for a moment. It wasn’t his time yet, so he wasn’t exactly on a need-to-know basis. But the day was young and heck, who knew, he might get hit by an ox-cart on the way home and I’d be visiting him sooner rather than later. So I told him, “I am Death.”
“Perfect!” he cried, with a jump in the air. Thinking back, I’ve never seen someone so ridiculous in all my life as he looked in that moment.
“You know neither rich nor poor, for all are equal in your eyes!” he said.
“Yes…” I said hesitantly, taking a step or two back. This guy seemed a little off if you know what I mean.
“You must be the Godfather of my children! Please, you are the best I can do at the moment.”
Not exactly the most flattering of reasons, but I was curious as to his reasoning. Now important to note is that in most versions of this story, they say that I just walked up to him and said “Take me as your Godfather,” which is ridiculous when you think about it because that would suggest that I just have omnipresent knowledge of the intricate details and goings-on of everyone’s lives. In truth, he approached me, not the other way around.
So he then proceeded to tell me that he had dreamt that he was supposed to go out onto the highway and make the first person he met the godfather of his children. He explained that he was poor and needed someone to help feed his thirteen children.
Ha I saw that face, you’re thinking the same thing I did. Thirteen children, very unlucky.
So he recounted how he had run into the first person he’d met who claimed to be God. After he found out he was God, he said “No, I will not have you as the Godfather of my children, you give to the rich, and leave the poor penniless.” I wanted to correct him then and there that that wasn’t really the case, but as you can tell, this guy wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. Even worse, this guy was a doctor too. We’ll get to that. I’m getting ahead of myself.
So then he says that next he ran into a man who claimed to be the Devil. Meanwhile I’m thinking, “Wow this guy has some interesting luck; God, the Devil, and Death, all in the same day. Not bad.”
And he tells me that once he realized it was the Devil he said, “No I will not have you lead my children astray.”
That one, I thought, he at least got right.
So by this point, he had recounted his story to me and I felt pity on him. Although I had to admit, he’d already blown his own prophecy since his dream had told him to make the first person he met the godfather, and I was the third. But as I said, he wasn’t the smartest lad. Besides, godfather really was more of an honorary position than anything, right? Wrong.
I agreed to attend the Christening of his thirteenth son, (after attending to my business with the old woman in the woods) and all I could think about during the whole service was how lucky this kid could have been if he’d have gotten God as a Godfather. I mean how can you go wrong there?
So I watched the kid grow up and follow in his father’s footsteps. When it was finally time for his father to pass on, he told me, “Please help my son become a better doctor than I was.”
It was tempting to tell him right then and there that such a task really wasn’t that monumental if you considered his track record, but I refrained and promised him I would.
So a few months went by and I decided to give the young man a gift. I took him out in the woods to that same area where the old woman had lived, she was a witch if you hadn’t already guessed it, and I showed him a weed she had tended for many years. I told him that with it, he could cure any ailment. But I gave him one condition. I told him that he was not a champion over me, all he was doing was delaying the inevitable. He gave me a look, it was sort of a blank stare that his father used to get too, and I knew inside that head, he was already trying to work out some way around it, so I gave him a simple system to follow. So simple a monkey could have understood it, actually a monkey probably could have understood it better. I told him I would be invisible to the patients that he presided over, but he would be able see me still. And I said that if I stand by the head of the dying patient, then he could use the herb to extend their lives, but if I stood by the feet, then it was their time to go.
He tried to argue with me, but I put my foot down. He grudgingly agreed and we shook on it. Once he went through his first dozen patients or so, and I let him save eight lives, he started to accept the agreement as the handfuls of gold in payment for his services started flowing in. But as is the case with you mortals, you always want more.
Pretty soon, he started growing bitter and grumbled about how he could be making so much more gold if he could save more people. Now I would have felt more sorry for him if he actually wanted to save people for the sake of saving them, rather than saving them to make more gold, but he didn’t.
Then one day, the King got pneumonia. By then, my godson had become famous enough that he was called upon by the King. This was a big moment for him; unfortunately—yes I can see it in your face already, you guessed it—I stood by the King’s feet. My godson just stood there for a second, and glared at me. And I could tell exactly what was going on in his mind.
“Don’t you dare,” I said, pointing my finger at him. It didn’t do any good. Without taking his eyes off me, he picked up the King’s limp body and flipped him in the bed so his head was facing me and his feet were on the pillow. Then he gave him the weed and cured him. He was happy that he now had the King’s favor; I was furious and I told him so afterwards. I remember standing there fuming and saying, “I should claim you right here and right now for that, but you’re my godson, so you get one more chance. If you ever do that again, your life is forfeit then and there.”
That seemed to do the trick because he towed the line from that point on. Then the King’s daughter got sick. I know, it seemed to be a rather repetitive problem in the family. Once again, he and I went to the castle and once again I stood by the patient’s feet. However, despite the fact that I had warned him, despite the fact that I had threatened to end his life, he thought he was in love with her, so while I had my back turned, he did it again. When I turned around, I just stood there and tried to splutter out some sort of reprimanding statement and nothing came out. He gave her the weed and the color immediately came back to her face.
Now most people might have cut the kid some slack since after all I was apparently being witness to true love at work. But “most people” hadn’t watched this kid grow up to be exactly as thick-headed as his father. “Most people” wouldn’t have thought about how this guy would marry the Princess (and future-queen) and perpetuate the genetic stupidity while mixing it with the royal family. So, right then and there, I snapped my fingers and the kid dropped to the ground dead as a doornail. In the long run, I did the entire royal bloodline a huge favor.
Oh don’t look at me like that. You know as well as I do that he had it coming. Besides, I gave him more than enough to work with. So do you see my point? How I’m so often made out to be the bad guy in these stories? That seemed like a rather half-hearted nod of the head. Oh stop trying to make excuses. You and I both know how this ends. Are you ready? Good then. All your affairs in order? Good, so when I snap my fingers it’s all over. Ready…set…
Heh heh, I love doing it to them early. Let’s see now, who’s next on the list?
This one came to be after I started reading Kate Bernheimer’s collected anthology of short stories based on fairy tales, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me. I read this in tandem with Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales and it got me thinking that I’d like to start writing my own collection of short stories based on some of these old fairy tales. Given how satisfied I was after I wrote “A Song by The River” I figured I’d start giving some more a shot. So after doing a little bit of cherry-picking through some lesser - known tales in the Grimm book, I found one entitled, “Godfather Death.” It had many variations, but all of them usually consisted of the initial father encountering first God, then the Devil, and finally Death, and then of course the ending with the cheating of death by turning the bodies to feet first instead of headfirst. I decided a fresh take for this would be to do it from Death’s perspective and also allow me to poke some fun at the story too. In addition, I thought it would be a fun and creative project to do a complete first-person narrative without any stage directions so to speak in the first part. I wanted the interactions to solely be spoken out, although I did make some exceptions once we get to the actual story that Death is telling.